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Chances are you might not have come across the game that precedes this. The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay was a much-admired, but criminally overlooked title a few years back; exactly the sort of game that won those End of Year Awards for most underrated game. It’s small reward for such an accomplished title. Butcher Bay had a much better script, better voice talent and a mix of common sense and innovative gameplay features that stood it apart from many of its contemporaries.
Butcher Bay made it all the harder to wait the four-and-a-half years for its follow-up, Assault on Dark Athena. Starbreeze, its developer, has been keen to stress that the latest game is not a sequel, but more an extension of the first title, much like Half-Life 2’s Episodes in the excellent Orange Box. In fact, Dark Athena bears a number of positive similarities to the revered Valve shooters. It’s not so much a case of stealing good ideas as one of Starbreeze seeing a way to do something that works and putting something similar in its own game. All this would count for nothing if Dark Athena didn’t have any good ideas of its own – and on that count Starbreeze has delivered too.
It’s probably safe to say that Vin Diesel’s movies aren’t really noted for his acting prowess. Mind you, Pitch Black, the film these games act as prequels to, was probably the best movie he’s ever done, and that he glowers a lot and doesn’t really say very much is no coincidence. In Dark Athena it’s the same deal. Diesel is his usual menacing presence – and given to a few classic (that is to say, massively cliched) Hollywood one-liners – but it’s the excellent supporting cast of characters throughout the game that really makes it shine.
Even now, with next-gen as current-gen, it’s rare to find a game populated with believable characters who add to the game. It’s usually the case that flat, poorly animated and badly acted characters pop up between the gameplay bits, getting in the way of the action. This time the interludes help the game along and add authenticity to what’s going on. Maybe it’s because of Diesel’s involvement with the title – his Tigon Studios is working with Starbreeze to put the game out, so perhaps that’s why there’s so much attention to the smaller details.
Revas, the self-appointed captain of the mercenary ship Dark Athena, is one example of a particularly effective character – she’s convincing as an unsettling, calculating megalomaniac. Although the game is scripted and stubbornly linear in its approach, and therefore given to few genuine surprises along the way, the strength of the supporting cast of degenerates, unfortunates and reprobates makes the atmosphere of the game really enjoyable, a throwback to some of the better sci-fi titles of the last decade – games like Half-Life, Deus Ex and Doom.
Dank interiors, storage crates, ventilation shafts… Dark Athena’s got ’em all. But while that undoubtedly adds to its ambience, it’s also undeniably conventional. Random boxes litter the many, many corridors you’ll be creeping through, interactive elements glow so you can’t miss them, while innovative moments of being let off the leash to try a slightly different approach are few and far between.
Not for Riddick is Sam Fisher’s geeky array of gadgets and gizmos. There’s no stealth meter, no sound meter, and very little in the way of equipment to help him sneak by guards. As simplicity is king in Riddick’s world, so it is in Butcher Bay – you look for a shaded spot and crouch in it to avoid being clocked. There’s nearly always somewhere to take a breather out of sight to plan the way ahead. Guards, or in Riddick’s case, drones, follow regular routines, so it’s a case of carefully observing their patterns and patiently waiting to snap some necks.
For much of the game that’s your main method of getting by. Save for the very start of the game, you’ll rely on your bare fists and melee weapons for much of the opening segments. You’ll be in proximity to others aboard the Dark Athena, sneaking through air vents and dropping guards with little warning as to who is patrolling ahead of you. Close-up combat is good fun – as Riddick dishes out the pain his arms get bloodied and his victim’s face swells and splits. It’s more like a sweat-soaked bout in Fight Night than a regular first-person shooter.
Crucially, the lighting is spot on here. Shadow is realistic and easy to spot, and you’ll know you’re invisible because the screen tints blue. Drones and regular soldiers can’t spot you, but those under direct control of an operator can (this is indicated by a white beam instead of a red one). Drones get wise in the latter parts of the game, ramping up the difficulty too.
Felled drones can then be shifted out of the way, Splinter Cell-style, to avoid being spotted by passing comrades, but in all honesty, you can get away with not bothering for the most part – even on the hardest difficulty setting. A cool touch is being able to use felled drones as temporary gun emplacements. You can use their weapon, clenched in their dead hands, until the ammo runs out. The aiming’s really twitchy, as befits using someone else’s gun, so it can’t be relied upon for groups of drones.
Later on, there is a small but mightily effective armoury available to you – an SMG, which fires 60 rounds at a blistering rate; the workhorse assault rifle; a shotgun and a pistol. You can use these in conjunction with some of the unique environments in the ship to amusing effect. One section has you running around a gravity generator; as you blast enemies, they drift off eerily to the center of the generator. As well as the many weapons, there are mech suits, drones, and even the mighty alpha drone for you to periodically commandeer. It’s great fun, though it’s a formula familiar to anyone who’s spent any time with a modern FPS.
There are complaints, but they mostly center on the loading screens and the checkpoint system, which can trap you in those situations where you have one block of health left, but are dropped straight into a boss fight-type encounter. They also lend a trial and error element to play, thanks to the frequency of autosaving. If you don’t know what’s around the corner, there’s no penalty for blindly running in and factoring that into a plan of attack. You can do it repeatedly until you nail it. One example was a sequence which saw us on a lift that descended through a huge storage bay, and then we came under fire from all angles with only a dead drone’s rifle for protection. We died lots, but soon noticed another enemy position, so there came a point, after the umpteenth death, where we could nail them all in one run. A rating system might have eradicated this.
Alongside the usual Capture the Flag and Death Match multiplayer options are two great modes: Pitch Black and Butcher Bay Riot. Pitch Black wins out – it’s a six-player game that has five playing as Mercs, with only weapon-mounted flashlights to see by, hunting down Riddick who can see in the dark. The tension here is brilliantly thick, and there’s a balancing act in choosing weapons – the more powerful it is, the weaker the flashlight. Butcher Bay Riot sees players splitting into teams of Mercs, prison guards, and prisoners and battling over an all-important power cell. Teamwork is key; the two modes really top the package.
The chassis of Dark Athena is five years old and it makes for a safe and at times a predictable experience. Still, this is a credit crunch-busting package, and it’s highly recommended.
Apr 7, 2009
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